Should Fans Be Critical of Switchfoot’s New Album Fading West?

“Don’t be an art critic. Paint. There lies salvation.” — Paul Cézanne

Yesterday, the San Diego native band Switchfoot released their ninth studio album Fading West.  While in studio, the group announced that their upcoming record would have a new kind of sound—and they kept their word. Unlike prior albums, many songs on Fading West are more styled in the pop-rock genre, conveying a beach/surf feel, pulling away from the previously grainy-rock style their prior album held.  This “new sound” is more than appropriate, as the album is accompanied with a documentary on their lives, travels around the world, and (of course) surfing.

That all said, many fans feel betrayed.  Switchfoot has often provided a freshness of sound that’s a bit different from what everyone else is doing—especially lyrically.  With this pop-album, however, it is argued that nothing is fundamentally “different.”  There are a lot of “whoa”s, synth-sounds, and lyrics that aren’t as penetrative as the songs of old.

“Instead of another entry in the catalog of exciting, innovative, gritty melodic rock for which Switchfoot has been justifiably heralded, Fading West is a disappointing, dreary, misguided exercise in tweener-oriented commercial music making.”
The Examiner

It’s clear that fans have an expectation of what their favourite artist is to produce.  After all, they fell in love with the band for a certain reason.  So if the group removes that aspect from their style, it’s understandable that fans will be disappointed.

But is it right to view music solely through the lens of the fans?  Is an artist supposed to follow the expectation that fans create?  Is it good that the fans even do critique?

To answer out of order: critique is a good thing, as it often helps us to become better artists.  No one is an expert at everything, thus critique can help an artist see their art in a different light.  For example, two days ago, I finished writing a band piece and had a fellow composer look over it.  His critique was greatly valuable as orchestration is not a strong suit of mine.

The difference between my friend’s and a fan’s critique is that my friend and I are both musicians and have spent years of study and practice in our art.  We know what it is to create.  It isn’t like plugging numbers into a mathematical formula.  Composing is a very creative aspect that comes to us—we don’t really control it.  To compose is to serve the song that asks to be made.

Composing is also a reflection of our own being, affected by life experiences and philosophies that one embodies during that time.  Thus to ask me to write a song similar to what I wrote ten years ago is ludicrous.  Chocolate chip may not be my favourite flavoured ice cream anymore.  What I love may change if I have a child.  What inspired me before may not inspire me anymore.  Thus to ask me to replicate what I’ve written before is not a relevant task.

That’s why it makes me laugh whenever I listen to “judges” such as Simon Cowell or analysts like Michael Pachter.  They may “know” the business, but they have never artistically made anything.  When Cowell says that Bob Dylan bores him to tears, what weight does his word have when he’s never been a part of the creative process?

That all said, I’m not trying to state that only artists should be licensed an opinion on art.  I think a lot can be gained from the opinions of fans, critics, and artists alike.  The movement of disappointment against George Lucas from even before the Star Wars prequels were made is rather warranted and that should not be stifled.  However, I believe it’s important for everyone to not be fully sentimental when listening to a new work of music, but rather take it for what it is.  How does the music make you feel, separate from anything else the artist has done?  What was the artist going through when they made the album?

If you’re still in disagreement with the artist’s choices, that’s completely fine.  If the piece of music doesn’t speak to you, that’s fine as well.  However, I then implore you to take the advice inscribed in the epigraph: move from your disappointment and learn from the “mistakes” the artist made to make your music better.  It’s easy to be critical and sit separate from the artists.  It’s more challenging and more rewarding, though, to learn from others and make beautiful art.

“A true critic ought to dwell upon excellencies rather than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation.”
—Joseph Addison

[As for my thoughts on the album itself, it’s mostly positive.  I was initially a naysayer with the first listen {off the iTunes stream, let it be known}, but this album seriously has grown on me after listening to it a second time, stripping away any bias I may have had.  That all said, I can answer specific questions via email or in the comment section below]

About Jonathan Seligman

Jon is the Co-Founder and Executive Editor of NWYT. While his main profession is in education/music/history, he has a deep passion for philosophy, theology, ice cream, and everything else that life has to offer. See All of Jon's Posts

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